I had a wonderful adventure a few years ago, travelling through Tamil Nadu and then across the Western Ghats, through the spice hills into Kerala. It was in May, the month before the monsoon and whilst it was very hot on the plains of India, as I wound my way up to the hill station of Munnar, the temperatures cooled dramatically, and I was treated to expansive views of lush green tea estates. My destination for the night was Windermere Estate and I was lucky enough to spend the evening in the company of Dr Simon John, a marvellous storyteller and the founder and owner of the property. I learnt of his long career as an Ophthalmic surgeon in his home- town Kochi and how on a trip to the hills in the early 1980s he came across a beautifully located yet run-down cardamom and coffee estate that he thought would make a super family escape. A decade or so later with the help of his son, John, they opened five rooms to guests and today they have eighteen-rooms spread across clusters of cottages on the estate and are the most sought-after property in the area.
Dr Simon and I met in the charming original planter’s bungalow that is his own home on the estate. As the evening progressed, he shared many lovely stories of the history of the estate and the area. Dr Simon mentioned to me that many of the guests return annually and have become personal friends. After just that one evening I understood how easily that could happen and am very much looking forward to a return visit.
Our conversation takes place In July 2020 during the Covid-19 Pandemic.
What were you just thinking of?
I am thinking it has been over two years since we last met; it calls for you to make a trip to Kerala soon!! Of course, this will be when we make sense of the new normal and people do travel.
What are you doing for the rest of today?
I am an early riser so I do some stretches – meant to be yoga and a bit of meditation to start off the day… And then I get to my morning puttering a nice coffee from our estate – filter coffee- read a few newspapers and spend some time with my grandchildren in our sit-out. I am at my home in Kochi, and we have my father-in-law who is 93, my wife Molly, and my elder son, John, his wife and two naughty boys aged five and four. So that’s four generations under one roof, a lot of social un-distancing in these times.
I spend about two hours in the morning connecting with my people at the estates and at the retreats. Being 65 plus I stay put and haven’t been making many trips to the properties as yet, although my son John has been spending time at the estates this month with the lifting of the lockdown in Kerala. I catch one movie in the afternoon on Netflix, and a game of ‘3 on 3’ basketball at home in the evening, if it’s not raining, then a sundowner to follow and a light dinner. I think I have earned this time to be doing few little things of joy in life now.
Kerala has been lifting restrictions, and allowing life to return to its previous usual.The cinema halls remain closed, so are educational institutions, restaurants and hotels, and commercial spaces are opening up with restriction on the number of people. People wear masks, there is screening of temperature, and hand sanitizers and all that is still being followed. I am guessing we are learning to adapt to these times, although it is my wishful thinking that it will all get back to the familiar normal of earlier times.
How ‘real’ does the threat of the virus feel? Do you know any one personally who has contracted the virus?
Surely there is a fear of Covid and we are being cautious at home and at our estates, which have been working with lesser number of workers. We are allowed to operate the properties, however, we have not officially opened, but over the last week we have looked after a family at Windermere Estate who are personally known to us, and similarly we are opening up River House for a similar requirement in one of the coming weekend, again to people who are known to us.
Kerala has handled the situation well, and we all feel a lot safer in this little state, however, it seems a bit early in time to be letting loose.
I know of two friends of mine who have tested positive one in New York a trauma doctor, and another in UK who is in the travel fraternity.
If your own health and that of your family/friends is ok; then what is the greatest impact on your life (and on your work) of the pandemic?
Most my immediate family is at home, and I have a son who lives in Delhi, and his wife who managed to reach her parents’ home close to Calicut. We are all well for the time, and being in Kerala it feels safe, although I worry a bit for my son in Delhi, but he seems to be doing ok.
At the estate, we have resumed work recently, and there is a lot of backlog that needs to be done, and in farming it is important to have the work done in time. With regards to the guest facilities, we have been shut since mid-March, and there seems to be an uncertainty that continues about when travel is going to return to normal. Many experts say; tourism seems the first hit, the hardest hit, and will take the longest time to recover. We hope to be staying afloat until a resurgence, we hope tocontinue to look after our team, and in the meantime are preparing ourselves to give our future guests a comfortable, safe and a memorable experience.
What are you looking forward to post pandemic?
During the early days of lockdown, there were video clips making rounds, of how otters were visiting Singapore shore, swans in the canals of Venice, and dolphins in Italian coasts; almost sounding like how the animals were picking up that humans were at home. It is nice to have been reminded of the fact, that there needs to be more of an ecological balancing act put in place, and this pandemic has given us that pause button, where we are able to take the time to see this for real.
On a personal level, for most people I think, there has been a rejig of priorities for the better.
Has there been anything positive from the pandemic?
I feel most people are going to feel more responsible for themselves, their dear and near , and that knowing actions have consequences. They will care more. I think to sum it up the word would be more mindful. We will probably relook at many of the choices, the brands that we choose, what we eat, how we travel. Sustainability. Also, personal priorities have changed; work, life, family; experiences and memories over things; wellness of mind and body;
Is there an innovation (service, product, science, media) that you have been impressed with?
I have seen sudden spurt in videoconferences and being part of webinars. I stay away from technology, but I have enjoyed being part of few webinars. I have reconnected with many friends from college days. More digital payments and online groceries… just a few things that we recently have started using more.
What does your personal future of travel look like? When and where will you go first? What are you dreaming of?
I have not travelled much in the last twenty years since the start of Windermere. My work and my vacation are now at the properties. I am yet to make a trip to both Windermere Estate at Munnar and River House, which is mid-way between my home in Kochi and the estate. My son John has made a few trips in the last few weeks, and I am hoping to make a trip soon.
What are you finding inspiring now?
What has made you laugh out loud most recently?
If a reader would like to make a contribution, can you recommend a specific organisation/ initiative that could do with the support?
Kerala State Government has done remarkable work about quarantines, isolations, contact tracing. The lockdown extended over 75 days and was a challenge for those who relied on daily earnings. For the people who live hand to mouth, there were initiatives of community kitchen, and packages of food grains and health kits that were being sent to many. Donations can be made to the Chief Minister’s Pandemic Relief Fund here https://donation.cmdrf.kerala.gov.in/
There were many organisations that were helping out during the times of lockdown with regards to meals for people. I am guessing we have passed that phase, where this was required by many people. Today’s issues may be more related to engaging many of the repatriated people from other states and countries who have returned to the state in this time, and the fear of job losses in the current economic state. Retraining and more importantly mental wellbeing may seem to be the next issue that the state would require to face.
Both Windermere Estate and Windermere River House have opened now and are following all the Covid-19 protocols for safety They are ready to welcome guests from within Kerala and hopefully not before too long from other states in India and visitors from abroad. Bookings can be done directly on the website or I am happy to help you plan a fuller India itinerary through the Love Travel Journey Service.